House of Commons
Wednesday 11 September 2013
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
The House will wish to know that Nigel Evans has formally resigned as Deputy Speaker, and I have received his letter of resignation with sadness. I wish to thank Nigel for his three years of service to the House as Deputy Speaker, in which he has proved to be highly competent, fair and good humoured. He has been a loyal and valued member of the team of Deputy Speakers who assist me in chairing our proceedings. I am warmly grateful to him. I will make an announcement about arrangements for the election by the House of a new First Deputy Chairman of Ways of Means when the House returns in October.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Scotland Analysis Programme
The Government are committed to ensuring a well-informed debate ahead of the Scottish referendum and have already published five analytical documents covering a range of economic and other issues. Future papers from the Scotland analysis programme will be published over the course of 2013 and 2014.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. With the Scottish Finance Minister, John Swinney, admitting in his leaked memo that the affordability of state pensions would need to be examined in the light of separation, does the Secretary of State agree that a future paper should focus on pensions in an independent Scotland?
I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that pensions are an issue that people across the country are very engaged in and concerned about, and that includes what an independent Scotland might mean for them. They have heard experts, such as the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland—I declare an interest as a member—put out their opinion, but nothing is more certain than John Swinney’s opinion. The fact that he has said that there is a worry about this should tell us everything we need to know about the pensions issue.
Does the Secretary of State plan to have a word with his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House on making Government time available for the House to discuss the reports and analysis? If he cannot get the time, may I suggest that he allows the Scottish Grand Committee to have those debates?
Without being impertinent to the hon. Gentleman, the old ones are the best. I know how keen he has been on the Scottish Grand Committee, although I think that he is a fairly lone voice in that regard. I agree that it is important that we have proper debates, in whatever forum, about all the issues. The Scottish Affairs Committee is working through the papers and taking evidence from me, my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State and others. The House can decide when we get a chance to debate that, which I hope we will.
Whitehall’s “Project Fear” papers are looking at welfare, so will the Secretary of State confirm whether those working on the paper have listened to any advice from the United Nations envoy, Raquel Rolnik? She says that the bedroom tax is “shocking” and should be scrapped. Does the Secretary of State believe that the bedroom tax is a benefit of the Union?
I have not read the details of the report, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that, through welfare reform, we are focused on tackling an escalating welfare bill in very tight financial circumstances. What we are trying to do is tackle the mismatch for different families in different accommodation. We need to look carefully at the implementation, which is what my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I are doing. On welfare, the hon. Gentleman’s party commissioned a report on that earlier this year in relation to an independent Scotland. It complained that it does not have some founding principles for an independent Scotland and so could not really say very much about it. I wonder whether he can update us on any progress.
The views of the UN envoy have been very well reported. She visited both Glasgow and Edinburgh and said that the bedroom tax affects
“the most vulnerable, the most fragile, the people who are on the fringes of coping with everyday life”.
The Secretary of State did not answer my question, so I will ask it a second time: does he believe that the bedroom tax is a benefit of the Union—yes or no?
We will look carefully at the report, but as I said earlier, we are making some very difficult decisions in the context of an escalating welfare bill at a time of real financial stringency. However, we have been looking carefully across Scotland at how this is being implemented. My right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I have met or talked with all the councils in Scotland and the main housing associations. We have put additional resources into tackling the spare room subsidy issue and will go across the country again to listen to people, as we will do for the rest of the year.
Scotland’s rural economy remains a key focus for the Government. In addition to our support for the economy as a whole, we have, among other things, abolished the fuel duty escalator, provided funds for rural broadband and set up the coastal communities fund.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Many of my constituents are expressing concern that a privatised Royal Mail will try to wriggle out of its universal service obligation to deliver mail to every house and collect from every postbox in the country every day at a fair, affordable price. Will the Secretary of State assure my constituents that the Government will never abandon the universal service obligation or allow a privatised Royal Mail to water it down in any way?
The legislation is clear. We have legislated for a six-day universal service obligation and only an affirmative resolution of the House could change that. I highlight to my hon. Friend the fact that the Government have ended the rural post office closure programme. We have introduced a groceries code adjudicator and cut income tax bills for low and middle-income families throughout rural Scotland and the rest of the country. No Government have ever done more for the rural economy in Scotland. We are committed to a stronger economy and fairer society in all parts of the UK.
The Minister of State is well aware that rural east Ayrshire has been devastated, with hundreds of job losses and up to £160 million of restoration work required in respect of the open-cast mines. Only this week, a Scottish Government Minister said that he was not prepared to prioritise funding for the issue. Does the Secretary of State agree that funding will be required for the work and that the Scottish Government have to put their money where their mouth is? Furthermore, do we not need some form of enterprise area for east Ayrshire, to compensate for this national devastation?
I sympathise with the hon. Lady and her constituents about the devastating blow for her and other hon. Members, including the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), some of whose constituents are affected. He will meet representatives of East Ayrshire council later this week. We have to make sure that, when levers are available to the Scottish Government, they use them to help the hon. Lady’s constituents and others.
As one of my hon. Friend’s neighbouring MPs, I recognise the importance of Hexham and north Northumberland. As he knows, in a farming context and in so many other ways, any kind of legal border between Scotland and England would be an absolute disaster—not just for our constituents, but for all the United Kingdom.
Is the Secretary of State aware of the recent report on the effect of the Irish Government’s reduction of VAT on tourism-related businesses to 9%, creating around 10,000 jobs and a €40 million boost to the Exchequer? As 24 other EU countries already charge less VAT on hotel accommodation than the UK, will he press the Chancellor to take similar action and give a real boost to the rural economy?
The hon. Gentleman always makes serious points on behalf of his constituents. I appreciate that what he has asked about is a consistent theme of the tourism sector, and the Chancellor will no doubt regard it as an early bid for next year’s Budget measures. However, the hon. Gentleman would be more convincing if he brought along a costed example of how an independent Scotland would do such a thing.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that a major contributor to the rural economy is the ability to send goods around the country. In the north highlands, sending packages by courier services comes at extreme cost; the companies charge more than for the rest of the mainland. My hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) will present his excellent private Member’s Bill on Friday. What more can the Secretary of State do to ensure that courier charges for remote areas are in line with those for the rest of the mainland?
My hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) have been campaigning sensibly on the issue and raising important points. We certainly want to engage with my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine on his private Member’s Bill, which addresses a serious issue. We support the principles that underpin the Bill and want to see how we can use existing arrangements, through trading standards and other facilities, to make sure that nobody in remote or rural areas suffers from those excess delivery charges.
The average wage in my local authority area is 24% beneath the national average. Figures out this week show that 23.8% of households there are workless, almost 3% above the Scottish average. Does the Secretary of State believe that the Government, perhaps in conjunction with the Scottish Government, should be doing much more for rural economies?
I hope the hon. Gentleman recognises that these are structural problems that have persisted for a very long time, including when his party’s Government were in power. I share his desire to ensure that low-wage economies, particularly in rural areas, get the support they need. The very heart of our economic policy is to rebalance the country as a whole and move from the rescue to recovery phase. As we do that, the measures we are taking to support the economy as a whole by keeping interest rates and corporation tax down and investing in infrastructure will help rural and urban Scotland alike.
Earlier this year, as part of the Scotland analysis programme, we published a paper on currency issues that makes the strong case for Scotland staying in the United Kingdom. There have been no discussions with the Scottish Government about the use of sterling by an independent Scotland.
Does the Secretary of State recognise the democratic deficit that is on offer whereby under nationalist plans Scotland would keep the pound but the rest of the UK would still set our interest rates, our borrowing limits and our spending limits, while at the same time we would lose our influence and our representation? Does he agree that that is not more or less independence, but worse independence?
The hon. Gentleman puts the points very neatly. People do not need to rely on his words or mine; they can listen to experts such as the Cuthberts, who said this week that they would like an independent Scotland to have its own currency and that to stay part of a currency union is no independence. Similarly, Brian Quinn, the highly respected former deputy governor of the Bank of England, observed in his recent report that the idea of a currency union is to replicate all the problems of the eurozone. The nationalists fail to answer all the points from both sides of the argument.
Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that should a separate Scotland become a member state of the EU, a condition of membership will be an obligation to join the euro, with the further risk that that would expose Scotland to being part of a future bail-out of eurozone members? [Interruption.]
Notwithstanding the heckling from the nationalist Benches, which hides the fact that they do not have answers to these very important questions, the point is that they used to be in favour of the euro but now they have back-tracked; they used to be in favour of a separate currency but now they have back-tracked; and they are currently saying that a currency union would be the best starting point. I think Scotland deserves to know what the end point would be.
On sterling, Alex Salmond says he is in and the chair of the yes campaign says he is out; it is a bit like the currency hokey cokey. The serious point is that this morning a report says that if the UK had a formal currency union with an independent Scotland, in the event of another financial crisis London would provide the lender-of-last-resort functions, whereas if Scotland was in the euro it would be Brussels, and if Scotland had its own currency it would probably be the International Monetary Fund in Washington. Is it not true that in the event of separation all roads lead to Scotland having less control over its own financial affairs?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The best arrangement for Scotland is to stay part of the United Kingdom, where we get all the benefits of the currency but also the hugely integrated single market, which is enormously to our benefit, and a platform in the world that is great for all our businesses and those they employ.
The Scottish Secretary prayed in aid one of the Treasury’s analysis documents on Scotland in relation to currency. However, given that his own Chancellor is unable to get his economic growth forecasts correct six months to a year out, how can he possibly expect us to believe an analysis that is supposed to forecast the Scottish growth rate for the next 30 years? It is not serious, is it? It is just more “Project Fear” scaremongering designed to talk Scotland down.
I have to admire the front that the hon. Gentleman puts up. He simply does not answer any of the big issues on this. To take an example of forecasting, in our documents we take very sensible, reasonable proposals and look at how they would apply over many years to come—unlike when the Scottish National party forecasts oil revenues, when it takes all the best-case scenarios and then makes up numbers indicating that about £1.5 trillion of resources are available to Scotland. It is more like a tenth of that, but we never hear that from him.
4. What estimate he has made of the number of people employed on zero-hours contracts in Scotland. (900186)
There is no single legal definition of zero-hours contracts and it is not possible to get reliable estimates. The issue was discussed at the Scottish employability forum last week by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth and a range of Scottish stakeholders.
Many employers in Scotland insist that employees on zero-hours contracts be available for work even if work is not guaranteed. The Labour party has pledged to outlaw this practice and the Scottish Affairs Committee, under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson), has initiated an inquiry. When will this Minister and this Government put themselves on the side of working people?
It is important that our work force remain flexible, but it is also important that they are treated fairly. Officials from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills have undertaken work over the summer better to understand how the contract works in practice, with a view to taking action if widespread abuse is found.
In June, the Scottish Trades Union Congress and the Scottish Government published, following an analysis, a report saying that more than 250,000 people in Scotland are underemployed. Many of them are on zero-hours contracts and the overwhelming majority of them do not want to be. What are the Government doing to address this scandal? As an afterthought, perhaps the Minister could tell us how many people in his Department are on zero-hours contracts.
The hon. Gentleman will know that the Scotland Office does not directly employ any members of the Department, as I have already confirmed in response to a parliamentary question about zero-hours contracts. As I have just indicated to the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Gregg McClymont), we take this issue seriously. That is why BIS officials have been reviewing the operation of the contracts, and I very much welcome the Scottish Affairs Committee inquiry, which will perhaps provide greater illumination on the specific situation in Scotland.
Zero-hours contracts are undoubtedly misused and abused by many employers but, equally, I have spoken to many employees for whom the contracts fit their lifestyle well. Does my right hon. Friend agree, therefore, that reform is necessary, not abolition, and that nothing shows this better than the number of Labour councils using these contracts?
I do not know whether my hon. Friend is aware of the statement by Labour’s shadow Business Secretary, the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna), who said:
“We’re not actually advocating an entire ban…sometimes people quite like to use them.”
I think that that is something with which we can all agree.
If I may, I would like to express my condolences and pay tribute to those who lost their lives in the terrible Super Puma crash that happened while the House was in recess.
Until recently, Kyle McLean from Airdrie worked in a sports store. Like thousands of people across Scotland, his zero-hours contract meant that he could not take on other work and some weeks he earned less than £20. What does the Minister plan to do about the exploitative use of zero-hours contracts?
The hon. Lady is right to highlight the Super Puma crash and pay tribute to those who were involved in it.
The hon. Lady has a blind spot when it comes to understanding what her own Government did. She seems to suggest that zero-hours contracts suddenly materialised recently, but they were in existence under the Labour Government, who took no steps to review or do anything about them. I explained in my previous answer that BIS officials are reviewing the contracts, because while we want the employment market to be flexible we also want it to be fair.
Perhaps if the Minister looked at Labour’s policies he would get some ideas. The truth is that while the Government have sold off workers’ rights and made it easier to fire rather than hire, they have no plan to address the circumstances of people such as Kyle. Will the Minister follow Labour’s lead and outlaw the use of exploitative zero-hours contracts? Will he also confirm that the Secretary of State for Scotland is on a zero-hours contract so that he can do the Tories’ dirty work in Scotland?
There is one person in this Chamber who is on a zero-hours contract: the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown). I will take no lessons from the hon. Lady, because Labour did nothing about zero-hours contracts. I have set out clearly that BIS officials are reviewing the matter, because our policy is to have a flexible work force and fair employment policies.
The “Scotland analysis: Financial services and banking” paper considered private sector pensions. We will be examining state and public pensions in later papers in the series.
The Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland highlighted that, on independence, cross-border defined benefit pension schemes would have to be fully funded, which would leave a deficit of some £230 billion. That was dismissed by the First Minister, who said that he would merely call for a derogation from the EU. Given that the Czech Republic has not only been refused that, but has been fined, what does the Minister think will happen to Scottish pension arrangements now and in the future?
Spending on state pensions and public sector pensions is driven by demographics and is set to rise. The UK Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions absorb the risk of growth in demand and there would be more volatility in spending in an independent Scotland. Those are not my words, but the words of John Swinney. It is a pity that he said them in private, not in public.
The Minister must think that people in Scotland are buttoned up the back. He knows as well as I do that in terms of both revenue and GDP, Scotland spends a lower percentage of its money on pensions than other parts of the UK. Does he accept that the lower life expectancy in Scotland and other demographic trends make it important that decisions on pensions are made in Scotland by Scotland for Scotland?
I know that the people of Scotland are not buttoned up the back. They understand that the Scottish Government and the SNP say one thing in private and another thing in public. In private, John Swinney has made it absolutely clear that the affordability of pensions would be a serious issue in an independent Scotland. That is a fact. [Interruption.]
Oil and Gas Industry
As the shadow Secretary of State and my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland acknowledged a few moments ago, the whole House will want to pay tribute to those who lost their lives in the tragic helicopter incident in the North sea and to the vital work of the rescue services. That is a reminder of the risks that are faced by those who work in the oil and gas industry, and, indeed, of their bravery. The Government remain committed to working with the industry to ensure the highest levels of health and safety for all its workers.
My hon. Friend is entirely right. The industry has been quick to engage with all the stakeholders and, most importantly, with the work force. The Government will engage with all partners to ensure that the lessons of this tragic accident are learned properly.
12. I hope that the Secretary of State is aware of the agreement that has been reached between the offshore unions and Oil and Gas UK to ensure that offshore work force representatives have more access to installations. Will he join me in welcoming that example of the progressive and positive way in which the unions are helping to ensure that health and safety measures are enhanced in the North sea? (900194)
Trade unions, employers and everybody else who is involved in the North sea have worked closely over many decades. Recently, as we commemorated the tragedy of Piper Alpha 25 years on, we were reminded of the importance of having the right health and safety regime. The trade unions, along with everybody else, have an important part to play in ensuring that we always have the right regime.
The tragedy with the Super Puma helicopter was a reminder that, for all the heavy engineering and high-tech industry in the North sea, it is, at heart, a people business. The families and friends of the victims and of those who travel offshore every week need to be reassured that all is being done to ensure their safety. To that end, will my right hon. Friend meet the air accidents investigation branch to see what can be done to ensure that the lessons are learned from such tragedies quickly, so that people can be reassured that all is being done to ensure the safety of the operation?
Like many hon. Members on both sides of the House, my hon. Friend has for many years campaigned on North sea safety issues. Like our predecessors, this Government are committed to the highest possible standards. Of course, we want to see what lessons are learned from the tragedy, and ensure that they are shared with the whole industry, across the whole North sea and beyond.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Today marks the 12th anniversary of the tragic terrorist attack on New York’s twin towers. I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in sending our condolences to all those who were affected by that abhorrent attack, including the families of the 67 British citizens who lost their lives. These terrorists seek to divide us, but they do not understand that their actions only make us more determined and more united in our resolve to defeat them.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others and, in addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today.
I am sure all Members in the House will wish to associate themselves with the Prime Minister’s comments on this anniversary.
We are haunted by images from Syria—millions of people needing aid; children dying. I thank the Prime Minister for his leadership on humanitarian access at the G20. Will he now prepare a concrete plan? What steps will he take to gain international support prior to the United Nations General Assembly later this month?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise that issue. A Syrian becomes a refugee every 15 seconds; inside Syria, 6.8 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance; and the UN appeal is only 44% subscribed—there is a serious shortage of money. We have a plan between now and the UN General Assembly to encourage other countries to come forward with money, as we have done, and to back up Valerie Amos in her campaign to ensure proper access, which means including priority humanitarian routes into the country, cutting bureaucracy, and having humanitarian pauses in the conflict so the aid can get through. She will have our backing in getting others to support that, including—potentially—in a UN Security Council resolution.
I join the Prime Minister in remembering the terrible events of 11 September 2001, and especially all the British citizens who died on that day. The mindless cruelty of that attack must never be forgotten. Today, our thoughts are with the families and friends of those who died.
Today’s fall in unemployment is welcome—[Hon. Members: “Hooray!”]—but does the Prime Minister recognise the concern that unemployment is still rising among young people and is close to 1 million, and that the number of people who are working part time but who cannot find a full-time job is at record levels?
First, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he said about this anniversary of those dreadful events in New York. I also thank him for welcoming the fall in unemployment. Let me say clearly that of course it is welcome when unemployment falls, but we still have a long way to go. As the Chancellor said, we are turning a corner, but we need to build this recovery. We must go on backing businesses and dealing with our debts—there must be absolutely no complacency as we do everything we can to ensure the recovery delivers for hard-working people.
Let me share the unemployment figures with the right hon. Gentleman and for the House’s benefit. It is good that employment is up another 80,000 this quarter; that unemployment is down 24,000; and that the claimant count is down 32,000 just this month. Unemployment is now lower than it was at the general election, and the number of new net private sector jobs, which we have said was 1.3 million, is now 1.4 million, which is very welcome.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise youth unemployment; we do need to do more to get young people back to work. The youth claimant count is down by 10,900 this month, so there is some good news, but we need to build on our work on apprenticeships and work experience, ensure that the youth contract delivers and that children are learning the key skills at school, and help to get those young people into work.
The Prime Minister mentioned the Chancellor’s speech on Monday. The Chancellor went out and said that he had saved the economy—total complacency and total hubris at a time when, even today, unemployment is rising in half of the country: in the east of England, the north-east, the north-west, Yorkshire and Humber, the west midlands and Scotland. It was the Chancellor who choked off the recovery and he now wants somehow to claim credit for it. People’s living standards continue to fall. Will the Prime Minister confirm that wages are now around £1,500 lower than when he came to power?
Let me just remind the right hon. Gentleman what the Chancellor said, which I think is perfectly legitimate. He pointed out that the Opposition told us that there would be no growth without plan B. Well, we have growth. They told us that unemployment would go up, not down. They told us that growth of private sector jobs would never make up for the loss of public sector jobs. They have been wrong on every single one of those issues. Of course we need to do more to help with living standards, but the only way to help with living standards sustainably is to deliver growth in the economy, and we are; to keep interest rates and mortgage rates low, and we are; and to cut people’s taxes by raising the personal allowance. All the things this Government have done; things his Government would never do.
Once again we see from the Prime Minister, as we did from the Chancellor, total complacency. We are in the midst of the slowest recovery in 100 years. Let us talk about the Prime Minister’s record. Can he tell us in how many of the 39 months that he has been Prime Minister have prices been rising faster than wages and living standards falling?
I said we face a challenge to help people with living standards, but because this Government have taken 2 million people out of tax and have cut income tax for 25 million working people, household disposable income went up last year—that is what is happening. As I said right at the beginning, we have to build on this; we have got to keep going with dealing with the deficit and helping business to employ people.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about policy. Let me just remind him what the former Chancellor said:
“I’m waiting to hear what we’ve got to say on the economy”.
That is the verdict of the former Chancellor. I have to say that we are all waiting to hear a single, constructive suggestion from the Labour party.
The whole House and the country will have heard the Prime Minister unable to answer the question about what is happening to living standards. Let me give him the answer: for 38 out of the 39 months he has been Prime Minister, living standards for working people have gone down, not up. Will he confirm that the only month when wages rose faster than prices was when he handed out the millionaires’ tax cut and City bonuses went up—
The right hon. Gentleman went to Bournemouth and completely bottled it—that is the truth. The fact is that in this economy business confidence is up, consumer confidence is up and exports are up. The point I would make about bonuses is that when he was sitting in the Treasury they were four times higher. Under this Government, the top rate of tax will be higher than in any year when he or the shadow Chancellor sat and advised the last, disastrous Labour Government. That is the truth of it. This Government are making good the mess that he made in government.
The Prime Minister cannot answer the question on living standards, because he knows that the truth is that people are worse off under this Government. Here is the reality: the Government want to give maximum support to millionaires who are getting bonuses, so they give them a tax cut, but it is a different story for those who go to food banks. We know what the Government think about those who go to food banks, because the Secretary of State for Education, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), said that the people who go to food banks only have themselves to blame. [Interruption.] A Government Member groans—that just shows how out of touch this Conservative party is. We would all like to hear: does the Prime Minister agree with his Education Secretary?
Food bank use went up 10 times under Labour, so we do not have to take any lectures from the Opposition. While we are on the issue of complacency, let me tell the right hon. Gentleman: real complacency is going back to tax and spend and borrowing through the roof. Real complacency is promising no more boom and bust. Real complacency is thinking you can win an election, when we have learned this week that Labour has no economic policy, no foreign policy and no leadership, either. He promised us a blank sheet of paper; three years in, I think we can agree he has delivered.
The Prime Minister neither defended the Education Secretary’s comments nor distanced himself from them. Let me just tell him: the Education Secretary is an absolute disgrace. Let us see any of those on the Conservative Benches try to live on £150 a week; then we would see what happens. We have 1 million young people out of work, unemployment up in half the country and millions of people worse off while millionaires get a tax cut. For the few, not the many—he is the two-nation Prime Minister.
It is this Education Secretary who is delivering the results we need in our education system—free schools, academies and rigour in our schools—and the right hon. Gentleman should be praising him. I will tell the right hon. Gentleman what is a disgrace, and that is going down to Bournemouth and caving in to the trade unions. We were promised this great big, tough fight and great big, tough speech. He told us it was going to be “Raging Bull”; he gave us “Chicken Run”.
My right hon. Friend and the Government have been working hard to attract inward investment into northern Lincolnshire and the Humber region, with considerable success, but these efforts could be undermined by further delays to determine the application by Able UK. May I urge the Prime Minister to respond to requests from the leader of North Lincolnshire council and the Humber local enterprise partnership to intervene to ensure an early determination of the application, well before the December deadline?
I have spoken to my hon. Friend and his Humberside colleagues on a number of occasions about this very important investment. We all want to see the Humber estuary become a real magnet for investment, particularly green energy investment, so I am very happy to look at the issue that he has raised with me—he has raised it with me before—and particularly at the planning permission, with, of course, the responsible council.
Q2. The parents of the 1 million young unemployed people will think the Prime Minister is totally out of touch. This year, the number of young people with jobs has dropped by 77,000, and the Government’s Youth Contract has reached fewer than one tenth of the young people it was supposed to help. Does the Prime Minister not understand that not everybody lands their first job with help from a royal equerry? (900244)
The hon. Lady should welcome the fact that the number of young people who are claiming out-of-work benefits has fallen by 10,900 this month. That is what is happening—100,000 young people accessing work experience, many of them getting into work. It is 20 times more cost-effective than the future jobs fund, which she supported. That is what is happening under our economy, but, as I said, there is absolutely no complacency: more needs to be done to get young people into work.
Last week, despite having enough evidence to prosecute, the Crown Prosecution Service chose not to proceed and prosecute doctors in Britain offering to abort a baby because it was a female. Does the Prime Minister agree that this is very uncomfortable, that the Abortion Act 1967 is now almost obsolete and puts our abortion policy on a par with those of India and China, and that a female foetus in the womb today is more vulnerable than she was last week?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this. Let us be clear that abortions on the basis of a child’s sex are wrong and illegal in our country. The Daily Telegraph is to be commended for the campaign and the work it has done to highlight this important case, but in our country we have independent prosecuting authorities. It is very important that they look at the evidence and make a decision on the basis of the likelihood of getting a conviction and the public interest in taking a case to court. That is how things have to work in our country, but I share her concern about what we have read and what has happened, and it is absolutely right that professional action should be considered as well.
Q3. On Sunday, I joined Army veterans on the Anglesey leg of the Walk on Wales, an 870-mile tour of Wales organised by the charity, Walk on Wales, to raise awareness of their comrades suffering from mental illness. Great progress has been made over the past 10 years, but will the Prime Minister assure the House that he is redoubling his efforts to ensure that the NHS has access to Army records so that it can give the best possible service and treatment to our brave comrades? Will he also join me in congratulating and wishing every success to Walk on Wales? (900245)
I certainly congratulate Walk on Wales on its work, and I commend the hon. Gentleman for his efforts in his constituency, which is a beautiful one to walk around. It is important that we put money into veterans charities—as we are doing, using the LIBOR funds—to support many causes including mental health causes, but, as he says, it is also important to ensure that the national health service responds properly to these demands. I will look into his point about Army records and perhaps write to him about that specific issue.
Q4. After years of decline, manufacturing is now leading this country out of the financial mess left by the previous Government. May I compliment my right hon. Friend on his decision not to implement plan B, as suggested by the Opposition, and ask him to continue to support our outstanding manufacturing businesses, particularly those in my constituency and across the north-west in general? (900246)
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the news on manufacturing is good. All 13 of the manufacturing sectors have increased—the first time that has happened since 1992. Of course, the Labour party does not like hearing that good news, including the great announcement this week that Jaguar Land Rover is creating 1,700 new jobs. We must go on backing British business, backing exports and backing manufacturing to ensure that we make this a sustainable recovery that works for hard-working people.
As I have said, City bonuses are actually 86% lower than they were when the hon. Lady was supporting the last Government. She tweeted this morning—I follow these things very closely, as you know, Mr Speaker—that she had a question to the Prime Minister, and she asked for suggestions. The first suggestion came back:
“How happy are you that Ed Miliband will be the leader of the Labour Party at the next election?”
I cannot think why she rejected that advice and took advice from the shadow Chancellor instead.
Q6. Unemployment in my constituency has fallen for six months running. Today, we have learned that under this Government three times as many jobs have been created in the private sector as have been lost in the public sector. Does the Prime Minister believe that that is a “complete fantasy”, as has been suggested by the shadow Chancellor? (900248)
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have seen the growth of private sector jobs far outstripping the decline in public sector jobs, by more than three times in some cases. The Opposition said that it was a fantasy to suggest that that could happen. They also said that there could be no growth without a plan B, and they predicted rises in unemployment. They have been wrong on every major economic judgment.
Q7. I also asked my constituents what I should ask the Prime Minister today. Far away from the knockabout of this session, many people are concerned about wages and prices. Is it not the case that, under this Prime Minister, when prices outstrip wages, working people are poorer than they were when this Government came into office? (900249)
When prices outstrip wages, it is really important to cut people’s taxes, and that is what we have done by delivering a tax cut to 25 million working people, lifting the personal allowance and giving people a £700 tax cut. We have been able to do that only because we have taken tough decisions on spending, tough decisions on welfare and tough decisions on the deficit—tough decisions that the Leader of the Opposition has wrongly rejected.
When the Labour party left government, 770 young people in my constituency were out of work. Today, there are just 585, and we now have Westfield and Hammerson proposing to invest £1.5 billion to transform our town centre and create thousands of jobs. Will the Prime Minister meet me to discuss how the Government can help with the infrastructure improvements that will end the scourge of youth unemployment in our town that we inherited from the last Government?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course we still have more work to do to get young people into work. Overall, however, 1.4 million more people are now employed in the private sector and we have a historic, record level of women in employment, and the number of people in work is almost up by 1 million since the election, with unemployment lower than at the election and long-term unemployment down on a year ago. We still have more work to do, but we are heading in the right direction. We have to keep on track and keep working to help business to take people on.
Q8. Will the Prime Minister tell us why people with mental illnesses are being kept in police cells? (900250)
We are making efforts to try to bring that to an end through better working between the NHS and the police. This has been a long-standing problem under Governments of all colours for a very long time, but we are having those discussions to try to make good progress.
In May 2010, youth unemployment in Crawley stood at 7.4%; it stands now at 3.8%. On 27 September, I am holding a jobs fair in Crawley. Does the Prime Minister think that such events could be put on by all right hon. and hon. Members to help us further to turn the corner?
I congratulate businesses in Crawley and my hon. Friend on helping to encourage this private sector-led recovery, which is seeing more people into work. We are also seeing the number of young people not in education, employment or training at its lowest for a decade. As I said, there is absolutely no complacency, when more work needs to be done to make sure that this recovery delivers for people who work hard and do the right thing.
Q9. In April last year, I asked the Prime Minister about the thousands of people visiting food banks, and his reply then suggested a shocking complacency. His reply to the Leader of the Opposition today suggests that he has learned nothing since. Will he answer the question: does he think that the half a million people visiting food banks today simply need to manage their finances better, or will he admit that they cannot afford to feed their families because of his Government? (900251)
We should work with and thank the food bank movement for the excellent work it does, and we should recognise that the use of food banks went up 10 times under Labour. One of the reasons it has increased under this Government is that we took away the block that the hon. Lady’s party put in place, which was preventing jobcentres from referring people to food banks. Labour did not do it because it was bad PR, but this Government are interested in doing the right thing rather than something that just looks good.
Q10. Are national standards for sales and marketing practices in this country strong enough to protect against false advertising? Yesterday, a man in Bournemouth apparently advertised himself as made of steel, only to collapse entirely within seconds! (900252)
Q11. The Chancellor blames the eurozone crisis for problems in the UK economy. Since 2010, however, real wages in France and Germany have risen, when they have fallen in Britain. Will the Prime Minister finally take responsibility for the living standards crisis that families in this country are facing? (900253)
As I have said many times, times are tough because we are recovering from the calamitous situation left by the Labour party. If the hon. Gentleman wants to make comparison with eurozone countries, he will see that we have a much lower unemployment rate than many of them. There are no other European countries that can boast a record of 1.4 million new private sector jobs. The best way to help people’s living standards and the best way to help them out of poverty is to help them into work. I would have thought that the Labour party understood that.
I think that the document produced by the Unite union, which still sponsors and basically controls so many Labour Members, is a very frightening document. It is trade union leaders, not ordinary trade unionists, who are doing this. It is trade union leaders who want to damage our country and our economy, and who are playing politics with our future.
Q13. Tyrell Matthews-Burton was a bright 19-year-old from Walthamstow who had everything to live for. His only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yet two months after his brutal murder in Crete, the only contact that the Greek authorities have had with his family has been their posting home of the clothes that he was wearing that night. Will the Prime Minister meet me, and his grieving mother, to see how we can get justice for Tyrell? (900255)
I shall be very happy to hold that meeting. I think it is really important for us to do everything we can to help families who are put in such a position. To be fair to our consular services around the world, I think that they cope extremely well. They try to go the extra mile. They work very hard, and I know that the Foreign Office encourages them in all that they do. However, there are cases in which things do not work out in the way they should, and we struggle to get answers from other countries about their justice systems and what is happening.
Tragically, John Ray infant school, one of the largest infant schools in Braintree, burnt down a few days ago. Will the Prime Minister join me in thanking Essex county council for the speed with which it found alternative accommodation for the children, and in welcoming the encouraging news that the school is to be rebuilt as soon as possible?
I certainly join my hon. Friend in praising his county council. That does sound like a tragic event, and it comes on top of the fact that, as everyone knows, we need to provide more primary school places. I commend the council for its quick action.
Q14. Since the Government took office, the United Kingdom has suffered the second biggest fall in wages that we have seen in any of the G20 countries. Does the Prime Minister think that that is evidence that he has saved our economy? (900256)
As I have said on several occasions during this Question Time, if we want to see living standards recover properly—and I do—there is only one sustainable way of making that happen. We need a growing economy, we need to keep on top of inflation, we need to ensure that mortgage rates are kept low, and we then need to cut people’s taxes by raising the personal allowance. That is how we can help households with their disposable income. If we listened to Labour and had more spending, more borrowing and more debt, the first things to go up would be interest rates and mortgage rates. For all the talk of the costs that families face, that increase in mortgage rates would wipe out all the hard work that we have done. [Interruption.] The shadow Chancellor says “You wait.” Well, we are waiting—for one single sensible suggestion from a party whose Front Benchers have got it comprehensively wrong in the last three years.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Bangladesh, I am pleased to be leading a delegation as part of the preparation for our report on the Rana Plaza collapse. I thank the Department for International Development for its rapid response, and I am grateful for all the extra funding that was provided for it. Will my right hon. Friend join me in encouraging all businesses in the United Kingdom that trade in garments to ensure that their trade is ethical, and that other people are not being exploited for the benefit of our markets?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that she does to further relations between Britain and Bangladesh, and thank her for her reference to DFID, which works extremely hard with that country. She is absolutely right to draw attention to that appalling industrial accident, and to encourage companies to check their supply chains and establish where their produce is coming from. She has made a very important point, and I wish her well with the work that she is doing with Bangladesh.
Q15. Does the Prime Minister think that the A and E crisis has anything to do with the fact that he has cut the number of nurses by more than 5,000 since the general election, according to figures published by the Health and Social Care Information Centre? (900257)
The point is that since the election we have protected health spending and we are putting an extra £12.7 billion into our NHS, and the number of clinical staff, including doctors, in our hospitals has gone up, whereas the number of managers has gone down. Under Labour, things were heading in an entirely different direction.
This Government have a very clear policy on the issue of Israel and on the issue of settlements. We respect and welcome Israel’s right to exist, and we defend that, but on settlements we think that the Israeli approach is wrong and we condemn the settlement activity, and we have been consistent in saying that both privately and publicly.
Does the Prime Minister get it, Mr Speaker: that if it were not for this House of Commons reflecting the mood of the British public, Britain and the United States would already be in the midst of what, it has turned out, would have been a wholly unnecessary war? Is not this a vindication of Parliament, and a vindication of Mr Churchill’s words that jaw-jaw is better than war-war?
What it is a vindication of is the determination to stand up to chemical weapons use. We would not be in this situation of pursuing new avenues of getting Syrian chemical weapons out of Syria and destroyed unless a strong stance had been taken. That is the right answer, not crawling up to dictators and telling them how wonderful they are.
I hope that my hon. and right hon. Friends will bear with me during this personal statement. It has been a few years since I made a speech in this Chamber, and I am sad to say that this is the speech.
As many of you will know, following recent allegations I was charged with alleged offences yesterday. I now have the opportunity robustly to defend my innocence and seek acquittal. I have therefore decided that the best course of action is for me to return to the Back Benches. This is a decision that I have made myself after careful consideration.
I did not have the Conservative Whip as Deputy Speaker and I am not seeking its return until after the conclusion of events. I will sit as an independent Member of Parliament for the Ribble Valley.
It was one of the happiest days of my life when I was elected Deputy Speaker in 2010. It was an endorsement of my abilities to do the job by my colleagues, and for that I am grateful. Since these allegations, I have not been able fully to fulfil my duties in the Chair, which left me in a land of limbo. None of us was elected to the fine office of Member of Parliament to be put in that invidious position: unable fully to fulfil the reason we were sent here.
I am so grateful to the Speaker, and to the two other Deputy Speakers, the right hon. Members for Chorley (Mr Hoyle) and for Bristol South (Dawn Primarolo), for the unstinting support they have given me over the three years, but particularly since 4 May in filling in for me on my Chair duties. When I told the right hon. Member for Bristol South of my decision on Saturday, I even got a hug from her: thank you, Dawn.
I have had so many hugs, prayers and good wishes since 4 May, and I would like to thank everyone who has shown me such compassionate consideration, my family particularly, and my association who have been marvellous, and even seasoned, crusty journalists have displayed a heart which I have never before witnessed; you know who you are.
I was told I will soon see who my real friends are, and that has been true, but the truth is there have been so many of them, so thank you to my dearest loyal friends, including loyal members of my staff at Westminster and the Ribble Valley, and to you, my colleagues on all sides of the House who have spoken with me, looked after me, and just shown loving attention. Party divisions disappear at times like this—and they have, so thank you.
Rose Hudson-Wilkin, the Speaker’s Chaplain, and Andrew Tremlett, the Canon of Westminster Abbey, have given me superb spiritual guidance, which has given me the one thing that everyone in this world needs, alongside air, water and food—hope. Hope is that essential key to giving us a fulfilled life, and they have ensured that I retain my hope.
This is clearly the most painful thing I have endured in my life, alongside the loss of my mother in 2009 and the loss of my brother earlier this year. Winston Churchill said, “When you are going through hell, keep going.” That is sage advice. And so I will see this through to the end, with the support of the people who mean so much to me.
Returning to the Back Benches gives me the opportunity to speak out on issues such as the over-building of new homes in the Ribble Valley, threats to the Slaidburn doctors’ surgery and cuts to rural bus services—and so many others. It is the bread and butter of politics: giving support to the people who put me in the mother of Parliaments—my home for the past 21 years, and a place that has meant so much to me. I am proud to serve the people of the Ribble Valley, and the best tribute I can give them now is to get on with the job they sent me here to do. Thank you.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that personal statement. For the benefit of right hon. and hon. Members who were not in the Chamber immediately after Prayers when I formally notified the House of the fact of the hon. Gentleman’s resignation, I should like to repeat what I said then, just over an hour ago.
The service that the hon. Gentleman has rendered to the House as First Deputy Chairman of Ways of Means and a Deputy Speaker of this House has been exemplary. He has demonstrated to the satisfaction of colleagues throughout the House that he is competent, fair and good humoured. He has proved to be a loyal and hugely valued member of the Chair’s team. I am enormously grateful to him, and I know that the Deputy Speakers feel the same. When the House returns in October, I shall notify colleagues of the procedure to be followed for the election of a successor First Deputy Chairman of Ways of Means.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In Question 3 in Scottish questions today, something was referred to as a “separate Scotland”. I do not know what a separate Scotland is, and I presume that you do not know what a separate Scotland is, and certainly nobody is trying to create one. It is an argumentative term and a pejorative one used by the opponents of Scottish independence. I raised this issue with the Clerks yesterday and they agreed that the term should not have been on the Order Paper today. Can you assure me that “separate Scotland” will not appear again in any question on the Order Paper?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for his characteristic courtesy in giving me notice of his intention to raise it. He is, essentially, asking me whether the use of the word “separate” contravenes the rule against argument in parliamentary questions. The very fact that I am being invited to make a ruling suggests to me that a degree of controversy surrounds the word. There is a perfectly serviceable word that is used in legislation—“independent”. I think it would be best if we stuck to that in future where the rules of the House require neutral expressions. However, the use of the phrase “a separate Scotland” in debate or in supplementary questions is not unparliamentary. I hope that that is helpful.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I have evidence, which I have in my hand, that French company MagForce International and Chinese company Tianjin Myway International Trading have been promoting illegal weapons of torture at the DSEI arms fair, which is being held in London docklands this week. Can you advise me how to get that information to Ministers at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills as fast as possible to get them urgently to make a statement in this House about how that can have happened, especially since this is not the first time that illegal weapons have been found at DSEI?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order. Not for the first time, and probably not for the last, she has found her own salvation. She inquires about the quickest means by which to ensure that her concern is relayed to representatives of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Those on the Treasury Bench will have heard what she had to say and I am sure that it will be a matter of only seconds before her remarks wing their way to the Secretary of State. It is then for him to decide how to respond. It is not a matter of order for the Chair but the hon. Lady is well aware of the opportunities she has to call Ministers to account and I feel sure that she will deploy the weapons at her disposal.
It is, but there is a connection to the first point of order. I seek your guidance, Mr Speaker. I totally agree with your judgment on the original point of order, but may we have a judgment on when that same party attacks Scottish Labour Members of Parliament and calls them “London Labour”? That is an insult not only to the MPs but to Scotland in general. May I have a ruling on that, please?
First, I have ruled. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman, who could not conceal the evident smile on his face, is an indefatigable campaigner. He has broad shoulders and he is well able to look after himself. I think that on this occasion I have nothing to add. He has made his own point in his own way and it is on the record. I trust that his appetite on the matter is satisfied, at least for today.
Medical Innovation (No. 2)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about innovation in medical treatment.
It is a great honour to bring this Bill, which was introduced in the other place by my noble Friend Lord Saatchi, to the Commons. I want to take this opportunity to thank the many supporters of the Bill in this House and outside it, who come from across the political spectrum. The fight against cancer and other diseases is one cause that engenders widespread support.
Cancer, as we all know, is a scourge on society and affects the lives of millions of people in this country, so this Bill is about how we can help liberate doctors to innovate and how we can help those deeply dedicated doctors in their drive to find cures and improvements to what are in some cases very stale and even ineffectual treatments.
Cancer will touch almost every person in this country at some time in their life. Many hon. Members will have places of excellence in their constituencies where scientists may research, doctors treat, nurses care and volunteers comfort. In my constituency of Northampton North, for example, the first-class Cynthia Spencer hospice provides devoted and invaluable hospice care for those suffering from this terrible illness. For all these efforts, though, there is always more that can and must be done.
The Bill could make every doctor a researcher and every willing patient a research participant. This country has already produced 34 Nobel prize winners in medicine, but we want more so we must ensure that the UK stays ahead, and to keep pace with what is happening, we must radically change the way we innovate.
The NHS is an amazing asset to innovation because it has a huge wealth of information, all consented to, all anonymised, that is helping it find new answers. The end result could be that every willing patient was a research patient, which would mean that every time a patient used the NHS, they would be playing a part in the fight against disease. Echoing those words, the Government’s life sciences adviser, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), is joining me by sponsoring the Bill.
Unfortunately, that vision, which is shared by doctors and charities, might soon hit a roadblock—a seemingly immovable object—of the law, so that is what the Bill is designed to remedy. Let us imagine that a doctor is standing beside a patient and considering a sensible, peer group-approved innovation, to which full consent has been given, after other options have been exhausted and there is little else that can be done. At the moment, that doctor is stopped by the law—or the fear of the law, which is the same thing. The doctor must ask himself, “Do I really want to go along this route of innovation because, if I do, I will depart from the ‘standard procedure’, and then if anything goes wrong, there will be a trial at which I could be found guilty of medical negligence. Should I put my livelihood, family and reputation at risk, or should I stick to the well-worn path from which no liability can arise?” The law at present obliges the doctor to follow the status quo, even though they know full well that that standard practice leads only to a short period of poor life quality followed by death, and that is how scientific discovery is blocked by the current state of the law.
That is not how it was in the past, when innovation happened much more readily. For example, penicillin did not face such roadblocks. Present law, however, mandates that patients receive only the standard procedure, which is really the endless repetition of a failed experiment. The problem is that the law defines medical negligence as a deviation from that standard procedure, so the law’s insistence on following the standard procedure is really a barrier to progress on curing cancer. Any doctor’s deviation from standard procedure is likely to amount to medical negligence.
Standard procedure is defined simply as a procedure that would have been followed by a competent body of medical persons skilled in the aspect of medicine in question. However, innovation, by its very definition, is something new—a deviation from what went before that did not work. Without deviation from standard procedure, there is no innovation and nothing changes, and the treatment of many cancers has not changed for decades, which is one of the reasons there is no cure for cancer.
In one medical negligence case, it was said in court:
“The practitioner who treads the well-worn path will usually be safer from legal liability than the one who adopts a newly discovered method of treatment.”
The result of all this is that a doctor deciding how to treat a particular case starts with the knowledge that as soon as he or she moves away from existing and established standards within the profession, there is an automatic and serious risk that he or she will be found guilty of negligence, if the treatment is less successful than hoped. When there is only one established practice, even if it is the same course of treatment that has been applied unchanged for 40 years without any particular history of success, it will be impossible for a doctor to depart from it with confidence that he or she will not be exposed to litigation.
Some might ask why a change to the law is suddenly so urgent. It is because while the law may not have changed much, society has. The number of lawsuits filed against the NHS has doubled in four years. Last year’s payout was £1.2 billion. The Treasury provision for claims against the NHS has now reached £19 billion. Doctors are therefore increasingly frightened of being sued and even less likely to feel able to innovate. Furthermore, risk-management processes in the NHS and insurers’ policies only strengthen this roadblock to innovation. A growing fear of litigation has stifled innovation, which is why we need a change in the law to realise the well-expressed vision that every doctor can be a researcher.
We certainly do not want patients to be treated like mice, so the Bill would set out in law for the first time the obvious difference between reckless experimentation and responsible, scientific innovation. The Bill actually strengthens the ability of the medical profession to prevent reckless conduct and to control innovation properly. The good doctor will therefore feel safer in the work that he or she does, and the bad doctor will more easily be revealed as negligent.
How will the Bill do that? It will require the formal approval of any proposed innovation by a hospital’s multi-disciplinary team of doctors, so not only will the innovation need the fully informed consent of the patient, but a hospital’s own multi-disciplinary team of doctors will have to approve it. This is a severe test, more severe than the two doctors’ authorisation that is required by law in order to carry out, for example, an abortion under the Abortion Act 1967, or the two psychiatrists needed to authorise sectioning someone in a mental health institution under the Mental Health Act 1983. Under those provisions, the authorisation of two medical professionals is required. To authorise innovation as I propose, a panel of medical professionals will need to consent. It is a severe test, but however severe, it is better than the current position, in which the road ahead to any innovation in cancer treatment is closed by law.
The Bill will not cure cancer. It will be doctors who cure cancer. This legislation, however, will give those wonderful doctors of ours the certainty they need to innovate and eventually find the cure that will bring such joy to all whose lives have been affected by this dreadful disease. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Michael Ellis and George Freeman present the Bill.
Michael Ellis accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 13 September 2013, and to be printed (Bill 107).
Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill
[Relevant Documents: The Seventh Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, on the Government’s Lobbying Bill, HC 601, and the First Report from the Committee on Standards, on the Government’s Lobbying Bill, HC 638.]
[3rd Allocated Day]
Further considered in Committee (Progress reported, 10 September)
[Dawn Primarolo in the Chair]
Duty to Provide Membership Audit Certificate
I beg to move amendment 103, page 37, line 39, leave out
‘in relation to each reporting period’
(a) a formal complaint is received by the Certification Officer that would result in the Certification Officer requiring a membership audit in relation to the reporting period when the complaint was verified and
(b) the Certification Officer determined that a certificate was required.’.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 104, page 38, line 7, at end insert
(a) the Trade Union is appealing the membership certificate; or
(b) the Trade Union has challenged the Certification Officer’s acceptance of a membership audit certificate and invoked paragraph (a).’.
Amendment 106, page 38, line 22, leave out from ‘certificate’ to end of line 23 and insert
‘for which the trade union may request reasonable payment as per charges for requests for access to accounting periods in section 30(6).’.
Amendment 121, in clause 37, page 38, line 42, leave out
‘in relation to each reporting period’
‘if section 24ZA(1) is invoked’.
Clause stand part.
It is a great pleasure to get to part 3 under your chairmanship, Ms Primarolo. I shall speak to clause stand part as well as to all the amendments in the group. It is totally inadequate that we are discussing part 3 of this hotch-potch of a Bill without having seen the impact assessment for part 3 or any results from the curtailed consultation that was put in place at the start of the process.
It is worth putting the amendments into context. The past three days and the hundreds of e-mails that all Members have received from their constituents show how much of a dog’s breakfast the Bill is. It is in good company, following the hotch-potch of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill and the total shambles that the House witnessed during the passage of the Growth and Infrastructure Bill. Part 3 of the Bill before us provides wide-ranging new powers to the certification officer on trade union membership lists, but no one, including officials of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the discussion paper, the explanatory notes, the trade unions and, I bet, even the Minister can tell the Committee what problem the Bill is trying to resolve.
The TUC stated in its evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee:
“As with part two we are unable to discern the problem that this part of the Bill is meant to remedy.”
Nigel Stanley from the TUC went on to say:
“We have asked BIS, the certification officer and ACAS through freedom of information requests whether they have received or made representations that we need to amend current powers to regulate union membership . . . We cannot find any demand for part 3.”
The only justification for part 3 has been the publicly stated view that it came out of a high-level meeting between the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister. What a contribution and combination that is. I wonder whether Lynton Crosby was in the room at the time.
Without any rationale for the Bill coming from the Government, perhaps we have to look for our own rationale. The reason given for the Bill by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in its discussion paper is the potential for trade union activity to affect people’s daily lives. It says:
“The general public should be confident that voting papers and other communications are reaching union members so that they have the opportunity to participate”.
My hon. Friend is aware, as we all are, of the clamour for at least 20 years for the reform of lobbying practices. Can he think of any demand for part 3? Is it not sensible to judge that this is merely an afterthought—a spiteful swipe at the trade union movement—in order to distract from the fact that the Bill does not address 95% of commercial corporate lobbyists?
My hon. Friend is right. Parts 1 and 2 have been shown over the past few days to be utterly deficient. There is no evidence, no drive, no remedy to be pursued, no problem to be resolved that would justify part 3. There is legislation in place, which I shall come on to later, which shows that membership lists from trade unions are heavily regulated already. Part 3 is merely a legislative burden on the trade unions timed to deflect attention, as my hon. Friend says, from other parts of the Bill that are completely deficient.
My hon. Friend hit the nail on the head when he said that part 3 came from the high-level discussion between the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister. This is a continuation of other Bills that have been introduced over the past three years on the constitution of this country. They all aim at one thing—giving advantage to the parties in the coalition in the upcoming general election. Yesterday we saw their attempt to hide from lobbying groups and not be answerable to them. Now they are trying to curtail the influence of the trade unions and the support that they give to the Labour party in particular to give their own parties an advantage. That is what this is all about.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government cannot win the next general election on the arguments so they nullify the Opposition. It is ironic that part 3 heavily regulates trade union membership lists, whereas most of the stuff attacking workers’ rights came from the report written by a certain Mr Beecroft, who donated £550,000 to the Conservative party. The Bill deals not with the Beecrofts of this world but with the ordinary working people throughout the country.
Does not part 3 show that the Bill is partisan, and is it not one of the main reasons the Bill has lost the confidence of the public?
Absolutely. Parts 1 and 2 have been shown to have lost public confidence. I am happy to be corrected, but since I came to the House in 2010 I do not think I have had this number of lobbying e-mails from concerned constituents who feel that they are going to be gagged by this Government. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson), the governing parties cannot win the next general election on the arguments alone so they are trying to nullify the opposition, which is made up of trade unions, charities and lobbying organisations which do so much on behalf of our constituents throughout the country.
No evidence was put forward in the discussion paper to demonstrate that communications are not reaching trade union members or that there are shortcomings in the existing law relating to a trade union’s duty to maintain a register of members. Moreover, no evidence was produced to explain why the Government need to acquire yet further extensive powers over the lives of citizens and voters through this mechanism.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting intervention—the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), a Lib Dem Minister, shakes her head—and he is absolutely right; the Conservative party refuses point blank not only to give us any details of its membership, but to tell us how many members it has. I believe that is either because it cannot tell us or because its membership lists are deficient. [Interruption.] The Government Whip chunters “Tell us yours” from the Treasury Bench, but essentially we are talking about the Conservative party.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, in its justification for this part of the Bill, stated:
“The general public should be confident that voting papers and other communications are reaching union members so that they have the opportunity to participate”
because they affect everyday lives in this country. Well, if the governing party does not affect the daily lives of people in this country, I do not know who does. Perhaps we should extend the Bill’s provisions to that party. The only thing we know about Conservative party membership, of course, is that the average age is 68, which might tell us something about where the party is going.
We should not be surprised by the Government’s failure to provide any evidence, as we know that they run by opinion poll and anecdote. The House will recall the now infamous Beecroft report, which would take this country’s employment rights and health and safety landscapes back to the era of Queen Victoria. When Beecroft appeared before the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill Committee last year, he said that he had absolutely no evidence to back up such claims on compensated no-fault dismissal and the abolition of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, to name but a few, but that his assessments were based on anecdotal evidence and who he had spoken to. This “met a guy in a pub” type policy making is certainly not good government.
My hon. Friend raises some fundamental human rights issues. When I asked the Deputy Leader of the House yesterday why the Government had failed to produce a human rights memorandum, he failed to answer. Perhaps that speaks volumes—[Interruption.] I am not sure what the Leader of the House just said from a sedentary position, but perhaps he will want to respond properly in due course.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We will move on to clause 37 later this afternoon, when we will address some of the issues relating to confidentiality and the European articles. [Interruption.] The Leader of the House chunters from a sedentary position that we should speak to the amendments. As I understand it, Mr Speaker has grouped the stand part debate with the amendments, and I am addressing why I think clause 36 and part 3 of the Bill are deficient, which I think is perfectly appropriate.
I was talking about the Beecroft report’s ideological attack on working people and how the Government are making it easier to fire, rather than hire, employees. That is reflected in the thrust behind amendment 103— I say this for the benefit of the Leader of the House—and subsequent amendments in this group. The Government have yet again failed to produce any evidence whatsoever on what problem they are trying to resolve and what the impact will be on membership lists. Not only do they have no evidence, but, as I mentioned at the start of my speech, they do not even have an impact assessment for this part of the Bill and they have done no suitable consultation.
My hon. Friend will remember that Adrian Beecroft appeared before the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill Committee last year. When asked detailed questions, he could give absolutely no evidence whatsoever for what he was suggesting, yet some of those suggestions can be found in this Bill today.
Absolutely, which is why we should be addressing those issues in the Beecroft report, because they influence part 3 of the Bill. Perhaps Ministers, rather than chuntering from a sedentary position, might at last answer some of these questions when they come to the Dispatch Box.
I was talking about the lack of suitable consultation. As far as I am aware, the Government have still not published an impact or cost assessment for part 3 —[Interruption.] The Minister says that they have, but it was not there at 10.30 this morning. They did publish assessments for parts 1 and 2 back in July. In fact, the equality assessment states:
“A full impact assessment will be developed after, and informed by, a period of targeted consultation and engagement of a range of experts.”
But the Committee is debating this Bill before any of that work has been either completed or formally published.
On the question of consultation, my hon. Friend has quoted from the TUC’s evidence, which was given to my Committee in very short order indeed, because the Committee decided that the House should have some evidence. The reality is that this part of the Bill appeared eight working days ago; it appeared just before the end of July, the day before the House rose, and Second Reading was the day after the House returned, so that is three working days, and that was a week ago. If one wanted part of a Bill to not be properly scrutinised, this is precisely how one would do it. Either this House will do the scrutiny properly, or the other place will do it in due course.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. As Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, he has done some wonderful work on the Bill, and at very short notice. It is a great credit not only to him and the Committee’s staff, but to the other Members who serve on it. He has demonstrated how the Government operate. If one wanted to put something through that was ideologically driven but did not want it to be scrutinised, one would do as the Government have done with this Bill.
My hon. Friend tempts me to use unparliamentary language, but I will not go down that route. It is a fact that last night every single Lib Dem Member went into the Lobby with the Government to vote for part 2 and that it was only Conservative rebels who decided not to put up with the Bill. I think that is unfortunate.
I do not want to tempt the hon. Gentleman into using unparliamentary language, but he is factually incorrect. I do not wish to have yesterday’s debate about charities all over again, but the fact is that reassurances were given by the Government that there is a lot of work to be done, in which I hope we will all engage so that we can bring forward improvements on Report. I would have thought that we should all be working constructively towards that end.
Order. Perhaps we could return to clause 36 and the amendments before us. General Third Reading points about the entire Bill, or any comments about the whole part, are not in order.
Thank you, Ms Primarolo. You are absolutely right. That would have tempted me to discuss the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) producing amendments to other Bills in Committee and then not following through on the Floor of the House.
I was talking about the Government’s failure to produce any evidence, which I think feeds into amendment 103, because it is critical to the operation of the entire part, in relation to clause 36. My second point about the Department’s consultation is that it has not published or responded to any of the responses. The only information that Members of the House have seen is when people who have responded to the BIS consultation have self-published them, and I do not think that is good enough.
Trade unions are already heavily regulated, not just with regard to membership, but in other areas, too. No other membership organisations, voluntary sector groups, businesses or, indeed, political parties in the UK are subject to equivalent rules. There are already extensive regulations through the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act of 1992 and the provisions of the Data Protection Act 1998—a fact that the Government seem to have wholeheartedly disregarded in bringing forward the Bill—and the responsibility trade unions have to the Information Commissioner.
When the hon. Gentleman refers to the 1992 Act, he is of course referring to legislation from the mid-1980s that was virtually lifted into that Act. Does he not think that it is now time for a general review of that 1980s legislation?
If the hon. Gentleman wants to bring forward a general review of any legislation, he is more than welcome to do so. Perhaps in my haste I forgot to use the word “consolidated”. I was referring to the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, because of course it consolidated lots of legislation from the mid-1980s.
It is self-evident that trade unions want to have good membership records; I cannot see why anyone would argue that they do not. It is in trade unions’ own interests to engage with members just as any voluntary organisation wishes to maximise membership fees and ensure that people want to remain as members. Unions are nothing without their members; they exist to represent their members. They invest in a wide array of ways of communicating with them—from printed magazines, leaflets and posters, to websites, social media and e-newsletters.
Let us look at what clause 36 proposes for unions with more than 10,000 members. Should political parties have to account for their members? On Second Reading, the Leader of the House said:
“Trade unions are influential participants in public life. They have an important role representing members’ interests both with specific employers and in wider public debate.”—[Official Report, 3 September 2013; Vol. 567, c. 184.]
Who would argue with that? On the certification of trade union membership details, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills discussion paper says on page 4:
“Trade union activity has the potential to affect the daily lives of members and non- members.”
Surely those definitions apply as much to political parties as to trade unions. Political parties represent their members’ interests, influence wider public debate and can affect the lives of members and non-members. Trade union members represent a very wide and varied section of the general public.
The House of Commons Library brief shows that there are 7.2 million trade unionists. They represent a cross-section of ages, are split evenly in terms of gender and are well represented in terms of race, disability and types of work. Surely trade unions are in a good position to influence and share public opinion. In sharp contrast, there is an organisation that is the complete opposite and totally unrepresentative—the aforementioned Conservative party, which refuses to say how many members it has.
On a point of order, Ms Primarolo. My Committee looked at the White Paper on the lobbying Bill about 18 months ago. It made no mention of anything to do with the trade unions. The trade union provisions appeared in July, one day before the House rose—a bit about trade unions was bolted on to a Bill that all of us in the House had already dealt with as a lobbying Bill. Is it in order for those provisions to have been added when the House has been under the misapprehension that the Bill is about lobbying? Is this not a hybrid Bill and therefore disqualified from discussion in the House?
The hon. Gentleman is very experienced and has been a Member for a long time. As he knows, what he has asked is not a point of order. The House has given the Bill a Second Reading, and his points are for debate, if necessary, on the Floor of the House. They are certainly not a matter of order for the consideration of the Chair today.
Thank you, Ms Primarolo, for that ruling on an important point of order. I remind my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, that other stuff has been bolted on to Bills, including the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill—disgracefully, the agricultural wages board was abolished at the last minute in the House of Lords without any political debate in this House.
Before the Government start lecturing unions about transparency, they should take a long, hard look in the mirror, subject themselves to this Bill and publish their own membership audit certificate.
That is a good question. The Government have a policy initiative of taking out two regulations for every one brought in. Will the Minister say which regulatory burden she will be removing from the trade union movement, given the regulations that she has just put on the statute book? The Government have wholeheartedly refused to deal with zero-hours contracts, blacklisting, payday loans and the high cost of credit, but they are unnecessarily piling regulations on to the trade unions.
Is not my hon. Friend’s point the fact that the Government do not want to regulate people such as Lynton Crosby, yet do want to punish trade unions, whose only sin is to represent the ordinary working person? The only things they have ever campaigned for are people’s right to work, the ending of zero-hours contracts, decent pay and conditions, and decent standards. They are being hit, yet all the rich lobbyists such as Lynton Crosby are allowed to get off scot free.
My hon. Friend tempts me to stray from the amendments, but she is absolutely right. Week after week, the Prime Minister tells us at Prime Minister’s questions how wonderful the car industry is. The car industry in this country was saved by a partnership of people who owned the car industry, the trade unions and the work force all working together. The industry survived and is now in a healthy position—all credit to all those involved.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why I am so concerned that clause 36 has been added to this part of the Bill without discussion or proper consultation. There are already strict legislative mechanisms to look after trade union membership, but none at all to regulate shareholders or indeed members of the Conservative party. The fact that that party will not say how many members it has shows that we need regulation for that issue as well.
Could not the shadow Minister answer our hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr Hamilton) in this way? If on a lobbying Bill we are allowed to add in stuff about charities and trade unions, could not our hon. Friend produce another part to the Bill that addressed the issue he raises about shareholders? Obviously, that would be in order—anything can be added. Hon. Members from across the House could add stuff on child care, foreign policy or the Government’s war-making powers. Bringing forward a Bill and bolting on a part such as this at a very late stage is an abuse. It is surely not in order.
Order. As I said to the hon. Gentleman, I will decide what is in order. If a Bill has unrelated purposes in it, that does not necessarily make it a hybrid Bill in procedural terms. It would be as well for us to concentrate on the points before us now.
Thank you for that ruling, Ms Primarolo. All I would say is that my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr Hamilton) is one of the most experienced people in the House. Perhaps he could bring forward an amendment on Report to consider the issue of regulating shareholders.
I do not think that shareholders are balloted on remuneration; they do not have much ability to stop remuneration packages. They are not balloted on political donations or the overall direction of the company. In fact, individual shareholders in businesses are very weak indeed.
At least when everybody is balloted on anything to do with trade union membership, it is completely and utterly transparent because it is already regulated. That is why we do not need this part of the Bill; trade unions are rather heavily regulated already.
I move on to amendment 104, on the membership audit certificate. The Bill states that a union must send any membership audit certificate in relation to the annual reporting period to the certification officer at the same time as the trade union annual report. That may be good and well, but there is absolutely no natural justice for the trade union itself; that point has been made forcefully by the National Union of Teachers. What if the membership certificate is challengeable? It would not be correct for a document of such magnitude to be delivered to the certification officer, with all their new regulatory, enforcement and investigatory powers, without allowing the trade union an opportunity to appeal what the certificate says.
There are no mechanisms at this stage for the union to make representations to the certification officer on the content of the certificate. That does not seem to be a proper process of natural justice or, indeed, fairness. The methods that assurers will follow to determine a membership audit certificate are not yet known. Moreover, given that there is already a well-established body of law covering the membership lists of trade unions, there should be a proper mechanism to appeal or challenge a certificate.
In the absence of a clear process, trade unions should have the right to challenge the certification officer’s acceptance of a membership audit certificate. This should involve a pause in publication and the right for the union to make representations on the content of the certificate, with ultimately, perhaps, an appeal to the Employment Appeal Tribunal, where qualified judges can make a determination that any qualifications on an audit certificate are valid and appropriate. The amendment would pause the sending of a membership audit certificate to the certification officer if the trade union is appealing the certificate or has indicated to the certification officer that he should not accept the certificate and the trade union will be appealing its content through a process to be determined. That is a fair and reasonable way to uphold natural justice and provide a degree of certainty in the system. I hope that the Minister will consider the amendment.
Since the Government have been unable to justify what this part of the Bill is trying to achieve and will not even tell us their party’s own membership levels, we must start from a position of determining whether the existing system is working. The Opposition will do that work for the Government if they are not willing to do it. As the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) said, since the mid-1980s every trade union has been under a duty to compile and maintain a register of the names and addresses of its members. That duty is provided for in section 24 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. Under that Act, a trade union has a duty to maintain a register of names and addresses of its members and a duty,
“so far as reasonably practicable”,
to ensure that entries in the register are kept up to date. Section 24 also provides that a union must allow any member, on reasonable notice, to ascertain whether the register contains an entry relating to him or her and, if requested, supply a copy of any such entry. This means that the trade union has an existing obligation in law to ensure that its records are accurate.
The existing law specifies that there is an obligation to remove from the register the names of those no longer wishing to be members, that the primary responsibility for informing a union of a change of address is that of the member—I hope that hon. Members remember that part, in particular—and that there is a duty to secure an accurate register
“so far as reasonably practicable”,
which permits a margin of error. The remedy for failure to comply with these requirements is by way of complaint to the certification officer or the courts. Section 25 of the Act states:
“A member of a trade union who claims that the union has failed to comply with any of the requirements of section 24…may apply to the Certification Officer for a declaration to that effect.”
The main thrust of amendment 103 is that, in our view, clause 36 is without foundation and encourages vexatious inquiries for no purpose. I also contend that it will not make membership lists any more accurate. I will be interested to hear whether the Minister has any evidence whatsoever that demonstrates that overlaying this law on to the existing law will make trade unions’ membership lists any more accurate.
On Second Reading, the Leader of the House said of the clause:
“It will require trade unions visibly to demonstrate that they know who their members are and can contact them. The principle that unions must be able to contact their members”—
this is key—
“is well established in legislation.”—[Official Report, 3 September 2013; Vol. 184, c. 567.]
He is right; it is well established in law already. The facts bear this out, and I will give some of them to highlight how detailed membership information already is, as shown by the extensive annual reports published on the certification officer’s website. First, the certification officer’s annual report for 2012-13 says that 166 trade unions submitted returns—not membership lists but returns—recording a total of 7,197,415 members, a figure that does not appear to be inaccurate, compared with 7,261,210 in the previous year: again, a very exact figure. The largest reduction in membership was in the construction sector, which perhaps says more about the Government’s policies than trade union membership.
Secondly, the annual return has to include a copy of the auditor’s report on the accounts, allowing the certification officer to compare revenue from dues with the numbers reported. In 2012-13, the last full year for which returns have been published on the certification officer’s website, the returns showed that income from members increased by 1.3% to £873 million. The returns also show that the total number of contributing members was about 90.5% of the total membership, compared with 89.4% in the preceding year. There are a number of detailed reasons why those figures differ, but to go into them would rule me out of order. As I am trying to demonstrate, the information is already available in the public domain for anyone to dig into. It is on the certification officer’s website, transposed from the annual reports of each of the 166 trade unions that submitted their returns. I would think that any reasonably independent person looking at those publicly available reports would agree that the Government already have extensive information-gathering powers on the finances and membership of trade unions.
Significantly, in 2012-13 not a single trade union member lodged a complaint with the certification officer about the maintenance of the register’s names and addresses.
The hon. Gentleman says that no one made a complaint. Can that not be turned around? If members of the public suffer when a service is removed because of a fraudulent union vote and they cannot go about their daily work, why should only members of the union be able to complain about that and ask for an investigation?
Members of the public are suffering not because of the trade unions but because of the policies of the Government. While the hon. Gentleman continues to attack ordinary working people up and down this country, people will be looking at this at home and thinking how out of touch this Government are.
I repeat that in 2012-13, significantly, not a single trade union member out of the 7,197,415 members registered with the certification officer made one complaint to him about the maintenance of the registers of members’ names and addresses—that is, not one complaint from nearly 7.2 million people. Let me emphasise that the trade unions and the certification officer work very closely together because they have a mutual interest in ensuring that processes are accurate and transparent. The certification officer’s own figures bear this out, and it is worth recording them; it is a shame that the hon. Gentleman does not have a piece of paper and a pen to write them down. Some of the figures may shock Members because they reaffirm how much of this Bill is completely ideologically driven and total and utter nonsense.
In the past five years, the certification officer has had no complaints to adjudicate on from, if we take the figure of 7.2 million, a total of nearly 40 million people on the membership registers. In fact, he has had only six complaints since 2000. Five of those were dismissed and he did not even issue a declaration on the sixth. Only 10 complaints have gone to a decision since 1987.
I keep giving way to the hon. Gentleman to be polite, but his interventions are complete nonsense. We are talking about 7 million to 12 million people being on the registers of trade union members every single year going back to 1987. That information is verifiable under current legislation and publicly available on the certification officer’s website. Yet all the hon. Gentleman can say is that there is a problem. Why do we need this Bill to go beyond the existing legislation? I am happy to give way to him again if he wants to tell me, in no more than one intervention, why part 3 and clause 36 are necessary.
My hon. Friend will be aware that the legal strictures on trade unions with regard to balloting are among the tightest in the world; they are certainly the tightest in the European Union. I can think of one ballot for industrial action that was ruled illegal because a comma was in the wrong place. The idea that trade unions—this is the notion suggested by the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly)—are conducting fraudulent ballots left, right and centre is simply illusory.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are getting to the crux of the issue, because it is becoming clear exactly why this part has been included in the Bill. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the accuracy or otherwise of the membership lists of trade unions. If the Committee does not believe me, it should listen to Lord Tyler, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on constitutional affairs, who said that one explanation for this part of the Bill is the role that some unions play in the Labour party:
“The third arm of the Bill is about ensuring that trade unions have accurate membership lists. We will listen carefully to what people have to say about how the detail of this is set up, but the principle seems beyond dispute. The membership numbers of a trade union have a bearing on how much money they can give to a political party through their political funds. In this sense, the trade unions have a unique role in UK politics. It is therefore important for transparency’s sake that the membership lists are accurate.”
I agree with Lord Tyler that it is important that the lists are accurate, but they are already heavily regulated in law. I think this has more to do with the Government’s obsession with the Labour party and trade unions than with legislating to help hard-working, ordinary people.
I had hoped that we would get an explanation as to why this part of the Bill is essential. If the only argument that can be made is that the public should be able to complain about a controversial ballot, surely if it was that controversial it would be taken up by the trade union movement and a trade unionist would object to it rather than wait for a member of the public to do so.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. No general secretary of a trade union, whether it is affiliated to the Labour party or not, would take strike action on the basis of a 51:49% vote of its membership. It would also be concerned about the legality of its membership list if any of it was found to be inaccurate, but the point is that legislation on the accuracy of membership lists already exists. It is in the union’s best interests—this has nothing to do with strike action—to have and maintain accurate membership lists, because it wants to communicate with its members, and it is also in the members’ interests to ensure that the unions have accurate details.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill was supposed to deal with moneys being exchanged so that people could pursue personal agendas to, in effect, line their pockets? We have heard about lobbying scandals, but the Bill was never intended to cover trade union members who write to their local MPs to say, “I don’t agree with zero-hours contracts,” or, “My pay is absolutely rubbish; could you please fight for my pay and my terms and conditions?” That is not what the Bill was meant to be designed for, yet it is being used as a weapon to hit the ordinary working person.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am not even sure whether Government Members have read amendment 103, because it agrees with the need for a process, but only if a proper complaint is made and verified and the certification officer decides that the process has to be followed. There is nothing wrong with that. It is incredibly transparent.
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the very small number of complaints made to the certification officer. I have in my hand the text of a speech that was given at a conference that I organised for trade unions and at which the certification officer spoke. The certification officer had done an analysis of complaints and, importantly, highlighted a small number of cases. He found that
“some of the allegations are clearly made with a view to cause problems for the union and not necessarily because of concern for the member’s interests”,
“some of the allegations of irregularities come from those involved in the irregularities”.
There was nothing of any substance in most of the complaints made.
My hon. Friend is right. Our amendment would allow people who have a proper complaint about a trade union’s membership list to make it through the normal channels, and the certification officer would then determine whether the complaint was vexatious or had merit before, on top of all that, deciding whether to instigate a process. If people wish to make legitimate complaints about a trade union’s membership, this Bill gives them a mechanism to do so, but our proposal is that they should be able to do so only if the professionalism of the certification officer proves that that process is required. Given that there have been only 10 complaints since 1987, I think the certification officer is pretty wily in determining what is and what is not a vexatious claim.
It is interesting that my hon. Friend has gone back to 1987, because the root of this law in the 1980s was a direct political attempt by the then Conservative Government to get trade union members to undermine their own union. There was a backlash after the miners’ strike when the then Government instigated the setting up of the scab unit to try to undermine the trade union activities of the National Union of Mineworkers.
The issue here is that only a small number of people complain to a certification officer. Does my hon. Friend know—if the Minister was listening, she might be able to answer as well—whether there is any evidence that the certification officer has raised concerns? Has he said that this is not working and that we need to change it? My understanding is that that has never happened.
The trade unions have complied with the legislation, with bells on, every single year since it was introduced in the mid-’80s, and the published figures are available to the public from the certification office. As I have said, the TUC made a freedom of information request to the certification officer asking whether he had recommended a change in the law to the Government, and he replied that no discussions had taken place. That underlines my hon. Friend’s point.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful and compelling speech. I am tempted, as the organiser of the highly successful 1985 political fund ballots, to venture into all our yesterdays, but I will limit myself to one question. He is telling us that there have been no complaints whatsoever, yet the lobbying Bill has a big part on trade unions. Has he noticed that, although complaints have been made over and over again about lobbying, big business, money and sleaze, they do not appear in a Bill that is called the lobbying Bill, and that something about which there have been no complaints has a big section in it? Is he able to explain that to me?
I am delighted that this Committee sitting has allowed the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee a little walk down memory lane with regard to his organisation of ballots in the mid-’80s. He is right that there is no compelling evidence. Of the hundreds and hundreds of e-mails I have received from constituents about the Bill, not one has mentioned part 3, because the public are concerned with lobbying, which is what this Bill was supposed to address.
As I was saying, only 10 complaints had gone to a decision since 1987. As my hon. Friends have suggested in their interventions, we must wonder whether the certification officer needs any of these powers, given the level of activity there is on membership lists. Indeed, the certification officer has less work to do in this particular area than the Leader of the House has in counting support for the Bill. People will be asking themselves whether the powers are unnecessary and disproportionate, and the answer is clearly yes.
Let us reflect again on what the Leader of the House said on Second Reading:
“All we are doing is asking unions to provide an annual assurance that they are doing everything that they can to ensure that they know who their members are and how to contact them.”—[Official Report, 3 September 2013; Vol. 567, c. 185.]
That is almost a one-paragraph description of the current legislation that trade unions abide by, including the Data Protection Act and their responsibilities to the Information Commissioner’s Office. The current law prescribes exactly that. It says that trade unions should ensure that they do all that is—we will come back to this terminology again—“reasonably practicable” to maintain their membership lists.
While the Government trumpet the slashing of red tape for business, as my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie) said—and for “slashing red tape” read “demolishing workers’ rights back to what they were in Victorian times”—they are imposing a completely unnecessary burden on trade unions to resolve a problem that does not exist. Indeed, officials at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills cannot tell us what the problem is.
Amendment 103, with consequential amendment 121, would result in part 3 of the Bill coming into force only if a complaint was received and verified by the certification officer as a valid compliant, and if the certification officer felt that a membership certificate process was required. That goes back to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran). The trade unions have absolutely nothing to hide. The amendment would mean that part 3 would come into force only if a verifiable and non-vexatious claim came forward.
Is there not a legal contradiction in the Bill? A trade union has a duty under the Data Protection Act to keep in its records, but not to divulge, personal and private details relating to each member. If the Bill is passed, it will give the certification officer, the certification officer’s staff and the new assurers access to that information. That is a huge contradiction and I believe that it contravenes European law. Should we not consider that at the first possible opportunity?
My hon. Friend is right that there are contradictions with the Data Protection Act and an inconsistency with articles 8 and 11 of the European convention on human rights. Those matters will come up when we discuss clause 37 and the cluster of amendments to it. Those inconsistencies highlight the way in which part 3 has been completely rushed through, without any proper consultation or dialogue with the people who are involved. There is also no identifiable problem that will be resolved.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) has just informed me that, as of 1.35 pm this afternoon, the Vote Office still did not have an impact assessment or a response to the consultation. [Interruption.] The Minister might say that that is not correct, but that information must be available to Members. If it is available, I wonder whether the Minister’s office could photocopy two dozen copies and pass them around.
It is extremely important with Bills of this nature that there is consultation with all parties that could be affected. Part 3 was introduced in July without any prior notification. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) said, there have been only eight working days since then. There has been a lack of consultation and there might not have been any. We have received legal advice that, because this is being done without prior consultation, it could violate the rights to privacy and freedom of association that are enshrined in the European convention on human rights. What is my hon. Friend’s view of that?
There is a very strong view that part 3 contravenes the European convention on human rights. The Committee will discuss that in some detail when it considers clause 37. That just shows how part 3 is being rushed through.
I say to the Minister that I am happy to pass around a hat so that Opposition Members who want to see the impact assessment can pay for the photocopying and so that her office does not have to waste paper. Perhaps she could come to the Dispatch Box and tell us whether it is available.
I will happily explain. The assessment has been in the public d